Last week I spent several days in tech circles on the move in the Houston area. Houston’s hot, and not just because it’s August. The business economy is booming. There’s a fearless, can-do attitude here in entrepreneurial circles that spills out into daily interactions. And things are changing. Entrepreneurism is beginning to feel like a lifestyle or life choice, not just a business perspective. Particularly on the tech side, there’s a whole subculture developing. The energy is great and out of it, great things will come.
One thing that hasn’t changed is how much people love to talk about what turns them on. It’s a thing I love about entrepreneurs.
I really enjoy my local Trader Joe’s but on Wednesday I enjoyed it more. The checkout guy and I riffed on the what kinds of chocolate are best while he was filling my bag. (Dark. Minimum 70% cocoa. No negotiation.) When he saw a @NASA logo on my keychain he asked what I do for a living. I sketched my answer in broad strokes and we started talking about space and technology. I’m guessing his age is late 20′s, early 30′s. Things are changing, and space exploration has renewed power to inspire, but what he really likes is the tech. “Cool”, he said.
So I asked what he likes about technology. It turns out he has a degree in art design but recently found his way to the University of St. Thomas and started playing around with electronics. There he got interested in brain functions and their relationship to vision. Now he’s working with a professor and couple of other students exploring brain mapping in combination with different visual filters when subjects look at art. Here’s the kicker: He built a lot of the equipment himself, and what he didn’t build he was able to source at low cost.
Research demands technology, technology begets innovation, innovation drives both technology and research. The difference – and the opportunity of these days – is the sheer power and low cost of tech.
He’s got a lot of questions: “How does a visual filter impact what the brain does when it look at a piece of art that it was previously looking at without the filter? What’s the relationship between this and how people look at their world? Our eyes lie to us all the time – can we figure out anything about how people filter experience that might help us better communicate with each other, based on what our brains are doing?” What Checkout Guy is really interested in are the effects of perceptual filters – the way we interpret information based on our experiences - and how the brain functions. He’s certainly asking great questions, but he wants to go further. He’s looking for ways to put what he learns into practice. He’s taking aim at a Big Problem – Communication – and wants to use technology to help solve it. He’s already thinking about how to use what he learns “in the real world”.
With some important exceptions, technology is becoming democratized, and that is making darn near anything possible. I’m going to keep that in mind, next time I check out at Trader Joe’s. And if you’re the one standing behind the counter, you might check these out for inspiration:
A few hours after my last post on “Innovation at Escape Velocity”, @TechCrunch posted a story on Y Combinator’s latest batch of startups. “New At Y Combinator: Startups Solving Huge Problems!” featured a group of “Big Problem” companies taking aim at social, biotech, and energy issues. It also gave a preview of what Y Combinator is planning to do in this space – namely, bring on more of the same.
The growth and implementation bottlenecks I talked about in yesterday’s post include some that definitely qualify as Big Problems. There are even a couple of intersections between my short list of examples and Y Combinators’s startups – energy, for one. So it got my attention last night when TechCrunch’s @ryanlawler tweeted a note about the investor show-and-tell at Y Combinator:
Investors look at things like management team, culture, plan, and – oh yes – market cap. Lots of them go with their gut, with their sense of what’s starting to roll, with what’s worked before, or with what analytics are telling them. Now, some of them may be asking themselves, “Will these ‘tried and true’ methods work here? Or is there something fundamentally different about valuation of Big Problem startups?”
Most startup narratives are pretty linear: Innovation (idea) + tech + management + culture + plan + investment + time + luck + penetration + acceptance + propagation = estimate of valuation/guesstimate of return.
But in the @ycombinator startup portfolio, the potential value of some startups is superlinear, multivariate, multiplicative - cascading across several different markets, social structures – even economies. The assumption is always that value will be positive, but complex interactions could generate negative returns in some arenas and positive returns in others. Valuation methods that take those interactions into account with even a little predictive validity would be a boon to startups, incubators, accelerators and investors alike.
In the short run it could be that none of this matters. Companies have a growth curve that requires funding to get from A to B no matter how big the idea is. Y Combinator is focused on early-stage companies, and investors who focus on just that part of the curve might gravitate to companies with the right teams and energy. More conservative types might jump into “BP” startups with tiered on/off ramps built into their offerings (for example) if they’re worried about whether the idea is “too big”.
Lucky for innovative visionaries, though, some investors look to the horizon. Matching those investors to these sorts of companies is an evolving story, and it’s one that Y Combinator appears ready to help shape. And they’re not alone.
But right now, these companies are the exception. In a later tweet about the Y Combinator startups @ryanlawler mused “So, yeah, it’ll be interesting to see who steps up and writes them checks”.
Yeah. It will.
Lately, I’ve taken the opportunity to scan the environment, peer at the future, and think about where current trends in business, government, technology, politics, economics and social organization are taking us. After a few weeks, some things are bubbling to the surface, to wit: The fundamental barriers or challenges to planning and execution of all “big idea” enterprises – exploring space, mitigating climate change, feeding people, controlling disease outbreaks, or conducting war for that matter - have always been with us. Technology hasn’t changed this fact – hasn’t fundamentally solved those challenges - just changed their format. Here are a few of them:
- How do we manage communications?
- How do we manage logistics?
- How do we manage energy?
- How do we manage financial systems?
These challenges and others form a kind of “box” that we’re constantly trying to get out of. They act as bottlenecks to implementation, growth, and future development. Innovations targeting these bottlenecks - particularly tech innovations that work across a variety of sectors, markets, and enterprises – are of very great value, highly attractiveto investors and entrepreneurs. In such circles the tech development cycle looks something like this, beginning with the challenge itself:
This begs the question posed by technology gurus, investors and policy wonks alike:
How do we identify which innovations will address or eliminate these challenges across enterprises/domains/sectors?
Getting the answer right is the bread and butter of venture capitalists. Of course, VCs add “creation of value” and “exit” to the pathway…but right now I’m just talking about methods to capture and shepherd the first few steps of that cycle.
Actually, “capture” isn’t enough. “Accelerate” is key to the future, the honest-to-goodness innovation. Finding a more reliable method to conceptualize challenges, identify the right innovation or candidate innovations, match them to a given enterprise or sets of enterprises or emerging markets os as to unleash growth and development, and then to accelerate that pathway – THAT’s the Holy Grail.
In human spaceflight, this type of thinking was behind the founding of SpaceX, started by Elon Musk with the initial goal of reducing cost per pound of cargo to orbit to $1000.00. This figure is traceable back to a series of studies fostered by NASA and the DoD in the 1970′s through the 1990′s. Those studies pointed to launch costs as the constraint holding back progress in the utilization and exploration of space. A couple of studies closed in on $1000.00/lb as the inflection point. If reliable transportation could be developed with transport prices below that threshold, it was believed that “the door would open” to Low Earth Orbit and beyond. This became NASA’s “target figure”.
SpaceX took aim at that target. The goal drove much of the startup’s functioning for its first several years and remains a corporate target (along with others.) A second major goal was to accelerate development, taking advantage of rapid prototyping to compete in the marketplace as soon as possible and to speed a much broader availability of space transportation than had been available in the past both to commercial interests (satellite companies) and to citizens who could pay for the offering.
The demand side of the equation is also important in driving markets and determining the “best” innovations. The role of the International Space Station as “customer” for commercial space transportation services is a case-in-point. For space transportation providers offering crew systems, there must be follow-on orbital platforms and new generations of paying customers to sustain them. The key point is that while SpaceX’s innovations are not enough to “create” a market, they may enable one and spur additional, unforeseen innovations. If so, Musk’s decision to target cost per pound to orbit could have impact for decades to come, auguring well for the company and for the space sector as a whole. (As I was putting the final touches on this post TechCrunch reported that SpaceX is raising money at a corporate valuation nearing $10B.)
(Update 8/21/2014: Several news outlets reported yesterday that Space X responded to the @TechCrunch story in an email to Re/Code, denying that it is raising funds and indicating that no such valuation had been done.)
So how might this work with another bottleneck? Taking “communications” as the example and using the logic described above, the entrepreneurial goal would be to identify, develop and deliver innovation(s) that remove communications barriers in big enterprises. I’m thinking here about the Ebola outbreak management in Africa, underseas or energy (or space) exploration, international diplomacy, or its opposite – war, or… social organization.
The “best” innovation(s) in communications should address three major requirements: (a) overcome or mitigate the effects of physical distance, (b) minimize or eliminate opportunities for interference, and (c) operate in such a way that language differences are irrelevant to understanding. With regard to social organization we have seen such an an innovation: Facebook has made great strides in (a) and (b) above and is working on (c). Not coincidentally, it also has 1 billion users, a market cap approaching $200B, and is stimulating new development in gamespaces, marketing, value-added technology development, and other social media platforms. It has also reconnected families, friends, generated new social circles, and arguably may serve as a platform for new types of democratic interaction and reform in the future.
What would happen to innovation spaces, to technology development, to businesses, to governments, and to social structures if we could more reliably identify and shepherd innovation(s) that would remove communication as a barrier across multiple enterprises?
Returning to the short list of challenges at the beginning of this post, and recognizing there are many more, what if we could more reliably identify and speed innovation across many of these barriers, across multiple arenas of human endeavor? What then, of the box?
Whole consulting sectors are dedicated to finding this answer and marketing it for businesses, but I’m interested in the social questions as well as the economic ones.
Escape velocity. That’s the goal. I’m spending most of my time thinking about it, and welcome your thoughts and comments.
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More about me at http://www.linkedin.com/in/marylynnedittmar/
This morning I put out a press release, announcing my decision to close Dittmar Associates after 10 great years. You can read it here:
The decision is joyful one. Change is good. My other prevailing emotion is gratitude.
I’ll have more to say about this, about the National Research Council Committee’s report on Human Space Exploration (published last week) that I helped to develop, and about several other things I’ve been mulling over for the past several months. But for now, I’d just like to leave you with this from one of the great poets of the 20th century. It captures perfectly my feelings at this moment of professional transition – about human beings, our quest to know ourselves and our fellow humans better, and about the drive to explore the universe.
“We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”
- T. S. Eliot